What Does Not Cohere: An Interview with Jessica Cooper

Photo by Patrick Feller, licensed under CC BY.

This post builds on the research article “Unruly Affects: Attempts at Control and All That Escapes from an American Mental Health Court,” which was published in the February 2018 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Marzieh Kaivanara: First of all, how did you come to include a mental health court in your research design?

Jessica Cooper: I very much like this question, because I think the way that you ask it reveals something about how my research changed over the course of my fieldwork, from 2014 through 2016. At the outset, mental health courts were not just “included” in my research design, but comprised the core of my work: as I imagined this project during preliminary fieldwork in 2013, it was to be an ethnography of mental health courts. At that time, mental health courts were of interest to me because the legal and clinical professionals who created and staffed them seemed to be trying to take on intractable problems—the absence of public social services for those in need, the shrinking of public mental health systems, the rampant growth of policies and institutions of mass incarceration—directly. They understood their work to be a project of social justice, of trying to think state systems differently than a status quo that they considered unjust. Even though the courts in which I worked got started almost two decades ago, they remain suffused with an innovative and experimental ethos. At the beginning of fieldwork, then, I wanted to understand what mental health courts were up to in trying to provide better resources for people whom the courts identified as mentally ill, while still locating those resources within the criminal justice system. What happens, I wanted to know, when a courtroom tries to remodel itself as a clinic?

As my fieldwork progressed and as I got to know both professionals and clients better, it struck me as increasingly imperative to spend time with people outside of the mental health courtroom. I am extremely grateful that my interlocutors allowed me to follow them to new sites that opened new intellectual spaces. I hung out in mental health clinics, probation offices, jails, county board of supervisors meetings, homes, cars, tents, parks, emergency rooms, other courtrooms, auto body shops, churches, buses, attorneys’ offices, halfway houses, cafes, donut shops: the motley array of places that make up fieldwork. At first, my interest in moving outside the courtroom was an effort at triangulation to understand how people behaved differently within and outside of the courtroom proper. But mental health courts, by design, are porous: as pieces of a puzzle of decarceration, they aspire to move people who are incarcerated out into the community, such that the court process itself tries to coordinate among these various spaces in which I spent time as part of a legal process. The court refers clients to clinics and social services for care with the idea that these service centers will report back to the court about how the client is faring, information that could then be used for legal decision-making about what was in the best interests of the client and the community. As I discuss in the article, I understand those efforts at coordination to be aspirational—more hoped for than realized, much to the consternation of both the professionals who work to provide services and their clients, who would like there to be more consistent services to receive.

But mental health courts, by design, are porous: as pieces of a puzzle of decarceration, they aspire to move people who are incarcerated out into the community, such that the court process itself tries to coordinate among these various spaces in which I spent time as part of a legal process.


In that sense, my ethnography is still of mental health courts, but with a commitment to exploring their inability to control and coordinate and thereby to question whether mental health courts are really institutions at all. As was the case with Harriet, try as mental health courts might to control and contain, there are always other narratives ready to escape, revealing an unexpected powerlessness on the part of criminal courts. This is an argument that challenges the scholarship critiquing mass incarceration on the grounds of the state being overly punitive, overly powerful, overly controlling to the point of injustice. To locate injustice, I suggest, in the excessive power of the state to control is to miss a lot of what is happening on the edges of criminal justice reform. How might we understand justice and injustice if we refuse the overabundance of state power as an initial premise?

MK: How did you zero in on the question of time and temporality in drawing out the mechanisms of power within the mental health court?

JC: My interest in the intersection of temporality and power stems from fieldwork in a carceral space located within the community. As I mentioned, mental health courts are projects of social justice positioned against mass incarceration. The whole point of mental health courts, the professionals who staff them would tell me, is to get people out of jail. They try to release people from custody as quickly as possible, although clients frequently end up waiting in jail for a placement to open at a homeless shelter or psychiatric home. So my turn to time came, in part, from the prodding of my interlocutors: what is power, they wondered, when it is unhinged from logics of confinement and spatiality?

Elsewhere, I have written more about the turn from space to time. Insofar as criminal justice is now something that is supposed to happen “in the community,” to invoke the language and mindset of my interlocutors, time is something through which the state attempts to govern and through which people stage resistance. But what I find most intriguing is the way in which temporality is multiply understood, such that these different engagements might not amount to frontal resistance, but might rather express an entirely different worldview that escapes state governance without explicit resistance. Harriet’s understanding of time was not developed to confront the state; she just thinks time differently, a view that I understand as radical in its refusal to even grant the state the power to determine the coordinates of political action.

MK: Your discussion of narrative genres in the context of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work got me thinking about the genre of your own article, which centers an individual life. Would you describe the article as a kind of life-historical writing?

JC: I wouldn’t. Which is, perhaps, a counterintuitive response, given that I began writing this piece as an exercise in “writing about Harriet.” Rather than try to classify my work within the project of single-life histories, though, I would turn to Harriet, or Dragomir, or Otam, or Alex, or Evan to contest the premise. Harriet does not understand herself to be one person, thus nullifying the foundation for a single life history. As I discuss in the article, this was a perspective that was frequently difficult for me to assimilate: when Harriet would raise the issue of her multiplicity with me, I would tell her that I accepted her understanding of herself, but that my experience was one of interacting with a single person with many sides to them. Yet I don’t take my interpretation of Harriet as authoritative: our different understandings exist alongside each other, alongside the court’s understanding of her, alongside her mother’s. There is no authoritative account that controls. I take this to be as true of “history” as of an “an individual life”—Harriet’s understanding of temporality undoes a linear notion of history, in a way that proves to be inaccessible to court professionals who try to get her to understand linear history as a vehicle to make claims of liberal accountability.

MK: Can you say more about your relationship with Harriet? How did you build a sense of rapport and trust with her? How did her various forms of vulnerability inform the process of research, and did it provoke any particular ethical and/or methodological concerns?

JC: This is more of a question for Harriet than for me! You would have to ask her about why she trusts me, and the extent to which she does. And, were you, hypothetically, to ask her, I would ask you to wait around with her awhile—months, perhaps—for the opportunity to ask the same question of Dragomir, because the answer might be different.

I tried my best to listen to Harriet and Dragomir and to not hold inconsistencies against her (or him). I tried to dilate my own understandings of the world so as to accommodate hers. I tried to make sure she knew that I was never going to try to disprove or correct her. I tried to make listening the vector of my care for her. This was not always easy, in the sense that sometimes, usually out of concern or worry, I would want to impose my worldview upon her by warning her about doing one thing or another, as if that could protect her. It couldn’t. And, more interestingly, I think, is the way in which Harriet did not always understand my listening to be an act of care or respect, as I intended it to be. I recall one tiff we had, a political spat over President Obama’s foreign policy in Syria. Harriet had conversationally stampeded over me, not letting me express my opinion, trying to dominate our interaction, and I had grown testy. I remember getting annoyed, exclaiming: “This isn’t a conversation. You’re not asking me at all about my opinion. You’re steamrolling me!” Harriet grew annoyed with me, insisting, “It’s not supposed to be a conversation! You’re supposed to convince me! Steamroll me!” My attempts to listen as an act of care did not always make her feel cared for.

Both in fieldwork and in writing this article, I was challenged by Harriet’s multiple vulnerabilities. I understand her to be vulnerable, as does she understand herself. But when I think of Harriet, then and now, I do not think, first, of her vulnerabilities. I think of her elaborate retellings of Eastern European folklore, her recounting of experiences and fights with other friends, the lengths she would take to learn about the farm industry, her love of punk music, her romanticism, the way that she spoke about being in love, her ruminations on family, her deep relationships with her cats. All of these interactions occurred within nested vulnerabilities, but those vulnerabilities do not determine her. As I understand it, to try to do justice by her is to try to reckon the reality of those vulnerabilities with her defiance of them.

MK: Finally, can you say more about the larger project of which this article is a part?

JC: The article speaks to many of the themes about which I write in my dissertation, “Unaccountable: Surreal Life in California’s Mental Health Courts.” Throughout the project, I approach the relationships to which mental health courts give rise—like the relationships among Harriet, Martha, Judge Manley, her mother, and her multiple selves—as windows into forms of sociality and ethics that are irreducible to negotiations of accountability. Through an examination of relationships among court professionals, court clients, and their families, I argue that more capacious understandings of ethics and care are needed (beyond renderings of accountability, responsibility, and their centrality to liberal governance) to countenance the forms of power articulated in the course of mental health court adjudication.

To do so, I turn to the social diffusion of phenomena that are more typically considered within individuated psyches, like paranoia, dissociation, and trauma. In tracing the flows of these psychic phenomena through the relationships that extend from mental health court adjudication, I access forms of power that are unaccountable to reason. I describe the affective experience of mental health court adjudication as “surreal,” in that the courts bring together multiple, incommensurable realities and function to punish and care without recourse to truth claims as warrants for state intervention. In foregrounding the surreal, I intervene in debates about statecraft and subjectivity by turning away from an understanding of power as deliberative, rational, or strategic, to instead address irrational and intimate encounters as integral to understandings of control and all that escapes it.